On a day when temperatures barely registered above freezing, dozens of residents from neighborhoods across Chicago and the suburbs arrived at Malcolm X College Saturday to apply for assistance lighting and heating for their homes.

The Utility Assistance Day was sponsored by Cong. Danny Davis.

Utility prices in Chicago are expected to rise. In October, ComEd applied to raise electric rates by $360 million. The Energy Information Administration, a federal agency, expects households in the Midwest to spend $1,053 on natural gas from October 2007 through March 2008, a 12 percent increase over the 2006-2007 winter.

Most of the attendees Saturday at MXC, 1900 W. Van Buren, came to sign up for the Low Income Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP), a federal program.

Depending on household size and income, LIHEAP can provide up to $750 to defray household energy costs.

Davis, however, added that LIHEAP does not receive enough funding.

“It’s a pittance of what’s actually needed. Who would have thought that in this rich nation on earth, the most technologically proficient nation on earth, as many people as there are would be sitting at home without heat,” Davis said.

Residents at the fair explained how their bills ballooned as high as they did. Several said the fell behind after losing a job, while others said it was difficult keeping up while living on a fixed income. Others said their payments to the utilities were lost, or a bill failed to transfer over to a new address.

Austin resident Sharonica Walker’s ComEd bill was $1,107.02, while Evanston resident Tammie Tobin’s totaled $1,600. Yolanda Lewis, of North Lawndale, also owed $1,600, but to People’s Energy. Englewood resident Charles May’s gas bill stated he was behind $554.17.

Lewis’s situation was as dire as anyone’s. A diabetic with renal failure, Lewis is confined to a wheelchair. She currently does not have gas service in her apartment, where she lives with her daughter, sister and nephew. Lewis said she heats the apartment with electric heaters. Cooking is done by microwave, an electric crock pot or with an electric deep fryer.

“Without the electric heat in my house, it feels like the North Pole,” Lewis said.

Using the extra electricity has caused her ComEd bill to swell to more than $1,000.

Representatives from ComEd and People’s Energy were in attendance, as were the Citizens’ Utility Board, Catholic Charities and the Salvation Army. But the two utilities received the most attention, as people tried to determine how they could pay a large, past-due bill, secure assistance from the company or work out a payment plan.

Bob Vondrasek, executive director of the South Austin Coalition, described the process as “kind of like Monte Hall, ‘Let’s make a deal.'”

Working with Warren Ellison, a community relations employee for People’s Energy, a customer, sometimes with Vondrasek helping them negotiate, could try to strike a deal with the gas company to restore service.

Ellison said a People’s Energy customer with a large past-due bill could get up to $200 of their own funds matched through the gas company’s “Share the Warmth” program.

Then the customer and company could set up a payment plan for the remaining costs, perhaps using assistance from LIHEAP or Catholic Charities to pay off the bill.

Vondrasek said many at the “ground level” in Austin are struggling with their utility bills.

“It’s very stressful,” Vondrasek explained. “A lot of people are losing jobs, and the cost of living is going up.”